Supreme Court Sides With Hobby Lobby

Posted on June 30, 2014 by


Embed from Getty Images

Today, the United States Supreme Court handed down a significant religious liberty decision. In Health and Human Services v. Hobby Lobby, the Court sided with Hobby Lobby, ruling, in essence, that the federal government cannot force closely held corporations to provide health plans that include contraceptives that might induce abortions.

These health plans are required, of course, by the Affordable Care Act, which compels companies of a particular size to furnish health care for employees or to pay significant fines. The Department of Health and Human Services, through a series of decisions, defined the coverage so that it would include a wide range of contraceptive alternatives. Some of those alternatives, arguably, are abortifacients, or drugs that terminate early pregnancies. Hobby Lobby, which is owned and operated as a “closely held” corporation by a family of devout Christians, objected to being required to fund such drugs, primarily due to their religious beliefs. The company argued that the HHS mandates violated their free exercise of religion, which is protected in the First Amendment. Notably, the HHS allowed religious non-profits to opt out of these requirements.

There are several legal issues that flow through this, obviously. One, which was pivotal for the Court’s ruling, was that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1993, binds the federal government to respect religious freedom unless it can provide a “compelling interest” for taking that freedom away from someone, and, if it can provide an interest, it must use the “least restrictive means” available when doing so. Basically, under RFRA, the government must demonstrate a serious need to act and its action must be as respectful as possible to religion.

RFRA did not include “corporations” in its protections, but it did include “persons.” In other parts of the federal law (particularly the Dictionary Act), Congress has determined that when it uses the word “persons,” it also includes corporations. This definition, however, does not distinguish between for-profit and non-profit corporations. Sometimes, Congress makes it clear that the law at hand only protects or applies to “people” as individuals and not as legal, corporate entities. There is no such indication in RFRA.

In this sense, the Court had to decide if this was a statutory matter, to be settled by interpreting RFRA, or whether or not it is a Free Exercise matter to be settled through the Constitution. Typically, the Supreme Court handles cases based on statutes if possible and not the Constitution unless there is a clear reason to appeal to the Constitution’s text.

The Supreme Court also had to determine whether or not the HHS mandates did indeed constitute a meaningful religious burden. In other words, is there a real religious issue at work here? While it seems obvious on its face, it is not. Some argued that the disconnect between paying for the policy and whether or not an employee might use the drug was too disconnected to be a burden on the employer’s religious beliefs.

The Supreme Court took all these matters into hand as it reached a 5-4 decision that determined that:

  • Corporate entities may “exercise religion” in a way that demands protection.
  • Hobby Lobby, as a “closely held” corporation, has legal protection from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
  • The connection between the employer’s provision of health care, and the employee’s potential use of abortifacients is close enough to be a significant burden.
  • the HHS mandates, regardless of the interest at stake, do not use the “least restrictive means” available to accomplish these interests. There are ways that HHS can accommodate meaningful religious objections, while still requiring companies to provide health care.
  • Therefore, the HHS mandates are overturned. Hobby Lobby does not have to provide these particular policies.

The ruling, written by Justice Alito, does NOT, deal with other types of companies. It only involves “closely held” companies where, usually, a small group, like a family, owns and operates the company very directly. The Court seems to imply that the likelihood of exercising religion corporately is connected to the company’s design and legal status. If different sorts of companies sue on these grounds, the Court would have to deal with that issue later.

Also, the ruling does not invalidate the employer mandate for health care coverage. It only requires the HHS to provide a mechanism that allows these companies to NOT pay for these contraceptives. What will that look like? HHS will probably craft a policy soon.

What to make of this? This is a good day for religious liberty. For the Court to draw a hard-line between individuals and companies would require too many Americans to bifurcate themselves, to divide their religious and economic lives. This ruling encourages believers, of all sorts, to integrate their most deeply held values and their actions. This is what we, as Christians, are called to do, so I am thankful the Court has recognized this.

This is another bad day for President Obama. The Democrats have strong commitments to women’s rights and for them those rights–to abortion and contraceptives–ought to trump religious beliefs.

Of course, what this will almost certainly do is shift the burden away from the employer and to the taxpayer. My guess is that the ACA will now be modified, either through the bureaucracy or executive order, to include these kinds of drugs at taxpayer expense. Due to the Supreme Court’s approach to lawsuits, we, as taxpayers, would have a hard time challenging these in Court.

I have not looked over the dissent at all, and I probably need to digest this more, so watch out for possible updates!